My Advice for Folks Who Want to Fund Education Reform: Break Out of the Echo Chamber

When I moved back to Oakland a few years ago, a now somewhat infamous charter school network was sucking up a lot of the philanthropic funding. Some of the large funders saw this network of schools and the academic outcomes, and not only did they shower it with cash, but they began asking other schools why they couldn’t be more like the high achieving network.

I heard complaints from other charters that were doing great work but couldn’t really attract funding in the golden age of “no excuses,” tough-love chartering. The funders had found a darling, the glitter of gold in their eyes.

But we have all heard that adage about all that glitters not being gold. Fast forward a few years, and that beloved network of schools was mired in financial scandals and allegations of creaming students and other not-so-good things. To the school’s credit they have substantially reformed, but I bet they raise less money now than before.

Where Do You Get Your News?

Philanthropy has an echo chamber problem. This was confirmed in the recent report by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Peer to Peer: At the Heart of Influencing More Effective Philanthropy, where 91 percent of funders cited peers as the “primary source of knowledge” in the field. While insiders view this as a positive, those on the outside might have asked the title as a question, rather than proclaiming it as an answer.

Do peers really know best, and make philanthropy more effective? I am sure that many in the philanthropic sector think so, but examples like that one in Oakland lead me to think that idea is flawed. Your peers may be impartial, but they may not be the most knowledgeable.

In an age where public resources are increasingly starved, philanthropy becomes even more important for moving forward essential public functions. We need a better philanthropy, and the first step is listening to a broader audience.

The Hustle

Let’s remember that the folks who are raising big money from funders are essentially hustlers. I mean that in the nicest way possible—after all, they are hustlers for the people. But let’s be honest, they are spinning a story and spinning it effectively. Again, many on the hustle are actually doing great work. But some are not—and as an outsider it’s often hard to tell.

But once a funder has been hooked by that hustler’s narrative, and they’ve decided to invest, the echo chamber begins. Other funders fall in line, and a new darling of the philanthropic community is born.

I heard this firsthand at a funder forum in Oakland. A foundation staffer nonchalantly described the due diligence for a grant as basically calling the other funders and asking them. That staffer didn’t seem self-conscious about the answer—it seemed to be the accepted process.

Who’s Your Hustler?

Here’s the thing: There are tons of schools, individuals and organizations doing great work that don’t have a hustler on their team. They’re not spinning their origin story or selling their student outcomes. They’re not investing in marketing to funders.

On the flipside, many others have raised hundreds of thousands or more with little to show for it in terms of results for kids and families. Among Oakland charter schools, I would be willing to bet there is a marginal relationship between real measures of student growth for underserved kids and the amount of private philanthropy. For example, I saw a recent fundraiser for the Oakland Military Institute raised over $2 million. Is this the school providing the highest value-add in Oakland?

My own charter incubator has helped start over 20 schools for high-need populations and has raised scarcely a dime (except for a subsidy in our first year from the New York State Charter Association), despite some groundbreaking models and successes.

Look, this isn’t sour grapes, and it’s not a knock on successful fundraising. But I’d bet a dinner to anyone that can show me a positive relationship between school fundraising and real impact with the kids who need the most help.

A New Philanthrocapitalism

So what’s a funder to do? Visit the programs you support and know them, and visit other programs and listen. Get out in the community and hear who is doing the work and who isn’t.

Remember that your scheduled visit to the grantee is a dog and pony show. A really weak program can’t look great, but marginal programs can hold it together for a staged visit for one day. It’s important to go on site at other times and work with kids and talk to parents so they can tell you the truth.

Maybe your accountability goals for your grantees are worth something, maybe they’re not. But with all the accountability talk funders push out to grantees, I’d like to see that same level of self-scrutiny from the philanthropies themselves.

I hope my funder friends (and frenemies) will think a bit more about how they get information, and what “good” information is. Echo chambers are comfortable places, but we need to be in the cacophony of the real community where ideas are challenged, results are messy and answers emerge from dialogue and data.

What do you think?

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